Tony Ward: World cup 'shop window' beckons for irish hopefuls
This period of the season should supposedly be the calm before the November Series storm or the lull after the Heineken Cup hurricane, but that certainly hasn't been reflected in the strength of the provinces' Magners League selections.
Nobody can complain that the Irish sides are not treating the bread-and-butter Celtic competition with the respect that it deserves. And this is good news for players, spectators and TV viewers alike, since it keeps interest ticking over nicely as the first World Cup 'shop window' of the season approaches.
Aside from sensible rest -- Denis Leamy and Niall Ronan being cases in point (although given his absence from Declan Kidney's 34-man party, Ronan might view it somewhat differently) -- most of the Ireland squad will be in action before reporting for national duty in Limerick on Monday.
So, this weekend represents one final chance for players on the periphery -- including those omitted from the squad named in midweek -- to convince Kidney of their worth.
Apart from Ronan, Shane Jennings, Jamie Hagan and Fionn Carr spring to mind.
In naming his first squad of the season Kidney, while staying with the tried and trusted (Devin Toner and Johne Murphy being the only new additions), has again used form as the main criterion for selection.
It is the one imperative that must never change. Lose that and, as a coach, you lose credibility -- and with that, the dressing-room disappears into the distance.
One or two of the seasoned campaigners might have made a stronger case for inclusion, but it is difficult to think of a better squad than the one Kidney chose, given form and injury.
It is an exacting schedule, with Ireland facing a four-match Autumn Series for the first time.
The aim, of course, will be for a clean sweep, but I reckon Ireland would consider three out of four (Samoa, Argentina and South Africa) to represent a satisfactory springboard for this demanding World Cup season.
To bag a Tri Nations scalp would represent a big statement of intent and show that Ireland are moving in the right direction.
Beating New Zealand for the first time would be the icing on the cake, but on the evidence of the summer, that looks a step too far.
The challenge for Kidney is to get the balance right for each game, with the long-term picture of the World Cup, now less than a year away, paramount in his mind.
The schedule should allow him some room for experimentation, with Samoa sandwiched between South Africa and New Zealand.
Ireland then wrap up against Argentina on November 28 -- never a fixture for the faint of heart.
But, for now, Ireland's attention is focused on the Springboks. If not quite in crisis, the world champions are certainly ill at ease with their coach and with their form.
Despite the visitors' problems, Ireland will need to field their strongest possible team for next Saturday's autumn opener.
There's no doubt that the absence of Paul O'Connell, Tomas O'Leary and Luke Fitzgerald has left Kidney with massive voids to fill.
Fitzgerald may be 'only' on the left wing, but he is a massive presence down that flank.
Nine of the players who finished the last Six Nations campaign so disappointingly against Scotland -- when another Triple Crown was in touching distance -- were missing for various reasons from Ireland's most recent outing, against the Wallabies in June. Geordan Murphy, Gordon D'Arcy, Keith Earls, Rory Best, John Hayes, O'Connell, Stephen Ferris, David Wallace and Jamie Heaslip were all picked against the Scots in Croke Park, but none started three months later in Brisbane.
Rob Kearney, Paddy Wallace, Andrew Trimble, Sean Cronin, Tony Buckley, Mick O'Driscoll, Ronan, Jennings and Chris Henry played in a much-changed Irish line-up that day, losing 22-15.
However, Kidney will pick from a much stronger hand for South Africa.
The areas in need of most consideration appear to be inside-centre, left wing, scrum-half and openside flank.
I admire what the head coach is trying to achieve in his use of Paddy Wallace alongside Brian O'Driscoll in midfield.
Wallace is an extremely perceptive and inventive player who runs instinctively effective attacking lines. The call for Kidney is to weigh that against D'Arcy's much more direct and dynamic approach. Once again, it will be a very close call.
In the absence of Fitzgerald, Earls would skate in on the left if he were at full fitness, but, on recent evidence, he appears inhibited in terms of sharpness and fleetness of foot as he returns from injury.
Trimble, by contrast, is on fire for Ulster and in my book, he's ahead at the moment.
However, the man whose opinion matters most will monitor Earls' progress in training this week before deciding.
At scrum-half it's a toss-up between Peter Stringer and Eoin Reddan in O'Leary's significant absence.
The call hinges on what Kidney wants his No 9 to achieve -- Stringer's swift service measured against Reddan's dynamic tempo in attack.
The pack virtually picks itself, with Cian Healy, Best and Buckley making up the front-row, Mick O'Driscoll alongside Donncha O'Callaghan in the second and Sean O'Brien in on merit with Ferris and Heaslip in the back-row.
That would mean Leamy and David Wallace missing out, which tells you something of the strength in depth in the back-row.
Selecting O'Brien ahead of either Munster man, particularly against the bruising South Africans, would represent a bold call, but I defy anyone to argue that the outstanding O'Brien is not up to it on all evidence to date.
The Tullow man has done more than enough to earn this opportunity.
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